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DREAM MACHINE: schecter guitar

Article from Phaze 1, November 1988

the utterly marvellous schecter guitar

Hours of craftsmanship and 30 years of development have gone into this, the guitar at the top of the Strat-style tree: it's worth the climb.

IF FOURTEEN HUNDRED QUID for an electric guitar sounds like a lot of money, that's because it is, indeed, a lot of money. Even a professional has to think twice about this kind of outlay. And for anyone else, the situation is akin to thumbing through the Porsche ads after the second driving lesson.

But the Schecter ST Custom is more than just a phenomenally expensive guitar. Though not, in itself, a revolutionary new concept in guitar design, it represents a coming together of design ideas which were born over 30 years ago in California, and which have been refined over the decades by manufacturers and musicians alike. To understand the Schecter, you need to take a look at its ancestry.

To those in the know, this is a Stratocaster-style guitar. The "Strat", as it has come to be known, was designed by Leo Fender and Freddie Tavares way back in the early '50s. It was immediately the most advanced electric guitar in existence - by a considerable margin. Its solid ash body was graceful and curvy so it nestled into your body, with your picking arm falling comfortably into place over the top. It was equipped with three pickups, giving greater tonal versatility than had previously been available; nobody realised it at the time, but the pickup selector switch could be lodged between settings to give a further two sounds, curious, nasal, almost hollow in tone and often mistakenly referred to as "out of phase". This was the sound around which guitarists like Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits fame) and Chris Rea more or less built their careers.

But Fender's guitar stood out from the crowd in more ways than one. With a few scarce exceptions, the necks of electric and acoustic guitars had traditionally been glued into place. This was the original Spanish method, and "modern" makers like Gibson and Martin naturally adopted it. But Fender broke with tradition by building his guitars' necks in maple and bolting them on: four large screws fitted through a chromed metal plate on the back of the body and bedded directly into the maple. Now, maple is such a hard timber that it's "tapped" by the insertion of these screws, and even on the oldest instruments, it's rare to see this wooden thread stripped.

Fender also wanted to build a new kind of tremolo arm. He relied on balancing the tension of the strings with the tension of a set of springs loaded into the back of the guitar's body and attached to the underside of the tremolo block itself. The block was fixed to the base of the bridge, and the front of this was joined loosely to the body. Upwards or downwards movement of the arm caused the bridge to rock on its pivot point, with strings and springs jostling with each other for equilibrium. Physics swots may know this as the "parallelogram of forces", but whatever name you give it, it gave the Strat the most advanced tremolo system for nearly three decades. Thirty years ago, vibrato (as it's correctly known) was used to add sparkle to those single-string melodies typified by the music of the Shadows and Ventures. Yet with Fender's help, the kind of whammy bar antics pioneered by Jimi Hendrix, and taken to even more ludicrous extremes in modern heavy metal, been made possible.

Now, all that applies to the Fender Stratocaster relates directly to our Schecter ST Custom. Schecter were one of those enterprising companies who realised that guitarists might actually want instruments that looked smart in addition to functioning efficiently. They started building replacement necks and bodies for Fender guitars out of exotic hardwoods: rosewood, birdseye maple, paduak and figured walnut, to name a few. Elsewhere, companies like DiMarzio, Seymour Duncan, Floyd Rose and Kahler were making similar advances in guitar electrics and hardware, so the potential was there to build a "Superstrat".

During the 1970s, the major factor that helped companies like Schecter become accepted by musicians was Gibson's and Fender's fall from world guitar-market domination. The Japanese, initially dismissed by the American companies as "copyists", were learning from their copying and learning fast. And helping them on their way were young guitarists in the successful bands of the day (eg. the Boomtown Rats), who cared not an anteater's willy for tradition, and were happy to play Aria, Ibanez, Westone or Yamaha.

So, with the path towards mass acceptance (if there is such a thing at this price level) clearly paved for them, Schecter began to make a series of utterly wonderful guitars, and haven't looked back since.

The model featured here has a finely figured body made of koa wood and beautifully finished in "tobacco sunburst", a colour associated with high-quality guitars since the pre-war days of Gibson, Epiphone and Stromberg arch-tops.

The Schecter's neck is one of the most exquisite pieces of birdseye maple you're likely to find. Maple comes in many varieties, from fairly basic sycamore to rock maple, birdseye, flamed, quilted and burr - each with a distinctive pattern to the grain. But the more exotic the graining in tonewoods of this sort, the trickier they are to work with. For instance, the eyes in birdseye maple can be ripped out by blunt or carelessly used machinery, and this is one reason why the wood's use is associated more with custom guitar builders than with mass producers.

Pickup layout follows the modern thinking of a humbucker at the bridge and two single coils in neck and middle positions. A single-coil pickup is basically several thousand windings of fine gauge wire, wound round six magnetised pole pieces. This arrangement offers a sound that is pure, sweet and clear, but it's also prone to interference from Transformers and fluorescent lights — and where you get interference, you get that old musicians bugbear, hum.

To find out how this problem can be bypassed, we need to delve into the depths of guitar history again. During the '50s, a modest Gibson employee by the name of Seth Lover developed what became known as the "humbucker" pickup - so called because it eliminated or "bucked" the hum. Lover wound two single-coil pickups out of phase (ie. one clockwise and the other anticlockwise) and wired them together in parallel, with a common magnet. Not only did this blitz the hum out of existence, it also created a warmer, fatter and louder sound.

Patent laws prevented any other company from making use of Lover's design, and for years, Gibsons were Gibsons and Fenders were Fenders. But as so often happens, musicians refused to be impeded by the machinations of big business, and players were soon fitting Gibson, DiMarzio or Seymour Duncan humbuckers to their Fender Strats - usually at the bridge since that's traditionally the lead pickup and the one requiring the most guts.

Schecter make their own pickups, and the result is exactly what you'd suspect - sparkling rhythm or Knopfler-style lead sounds from the front pair, devastating Van Halen police Skens when flipping to the back.

The Schecter's tremelo system is a further development of Fender's original design. It's licensed by Floyd Rose and probably made (like the machineheads) by Schaller in West Germany. Original Fender tremolos, while remaining efficient when put even to the kind of use Hendrix was famous for, can't really handle the massive dives and wrenches to tuning demanded by modern rock playing: the strings unwrap from the machine headpost, stick in the nut slots and under the string retainers, shift position or get fouled up at the bridge. So Floyd Rose and Kahler hit on the idea that clamping the strings at the nut and/or bridge would solve these problems and designed their own systems accordingly. Different players swear by different tremolos, but most rock guitarists today use Rose or Kahler.

One question remains unanswered: how does this guitar actually play? Well, "fabulous" is the first word that comes to mind, but beyond that there's not a great deal to say. It's back to that Porsche analogy: all expensive cars have trouble justifying their inflated price tags, but a Porsche has less trouble than most because you actually do get something special in return for your investment. Much the same is true of this grand-and-a-halfs worth of wood, metal and plastic: it actually feels as though it should set you back a lot of dosh.

If, like me, you know you're not going to be able to afford the Schecter for a good while (if ever), take heart. It's possible to track down any number of Strat-style guitars, new or secondhand, for as little as £120. They may not be quite up to Schecter standard, but many of them are far better than you'd have any right to expect. And once you're on the first branch of the tree, it's a short, sharp climb to the top. The Porsche beckons.

Previous Article in this issue

James Taylor Quartet

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Blue Eyed Pop

Publisher: Phaze 1 - Phaze 1 Publishing

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Phaze 1 - Nov 1988

Gear in this article:

Guitar > Schecter > ST Custom

Gear Tags:

Electric Guitar

Review by Neville Marten

Previous article in this issue:

> James Taylor Quartet

Next article in this issue:

> Blue Eyed Pop

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